“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Movie Review


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     In 2005, still before the advent of social media, “Star Wars” fans were told to rush to the theaters (as if we needed any extra motivation to do so) to see “Revenge of the Sith” as it was being billed as the last film in the series we would be seeing on the big screen.  George Lucas was done making “Star Wars” films, choosing instead to make a number of long gestating passion projects and putting his famed cinematic creation to bed forever.  In Lucas’ eyes, the story he wanted to tell was complete.  Several interviews Lucas gave at the time said he realized after producing the prequel trilogy, which told the story of Anakin Skywalker and his eventual transformation to Darth Vader, that 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” was the conclusive end to the story and his much earlier statements about having planned Episodes 7 through 9 were effectively retracted.  Making matters worse for the future of the franchise, it didn’t appear Lucas was giving up his Vader like grip on the “Star Wars” universe anytime soon, leaving “Star Wars” fans like myself to revel on small screen offerings like the quite good “The Clone Wars” animated series.  That is until we got to the year 2012, and seemingly out of nowhere Lucas announced he had sold Lucasfilm and the rights to the “Star Wars” franchise to Disney for over $4 billion dollars.

     It wasn’t long after the announcement Disney began setting a timeline in which we would not only get Episodes 7, 8, and 9, but also two additional standalone spin off films that would highlight the origins of famous characters and moments that happened prior to the Original Trilogy.  While some were fearful Disney would further dumb down the franchise and make films targeted for children, I already knew this would not be the case.  Fortunately, precedence was already set in the form of Marvel Studios and the massively successful titles overseen by Disney after they purchased the comic book giant and created what we now know as “Marvel: Phase 1”, which included origin stories for  “Ironman”, “Thor”, “Captain America”, and culminated with “The Avengers”.  Now can anyone name a pre Disney Marvel film that had any kind of box office or critical success?  Didn’t think so.  So no, I was never worried the “Star Wars” franchise fell into the wrong hands, as Disney had already shown they were more than capable.  Kathleen Kennedy, who began her career working under Lucas and Spielberg on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was named Lucasfilm President and she made an immediate hire in the form of J.J. Abrams to direct the all important Episode 7.

     Abrams, who boasts the achievement of what I thought was an impossible task in somehow reviving the dead in the water “Star Trek” franchise, had the right combination of modern day storytelling skill and fanboy credibility to warrant plenty of confidence.  And he did not disappoint.  “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a wonderfully crafted film that contains all of the key ingredients necessary to both please an aging fan base, as well as create a brand new generation of fans who someday will share the film with their kids.  “The Force Awakens” also excels in the areas we commonly assess in order to determine a film’s awards prospects. Abrams collaborated with Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back”, “Return of the Jedi”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) on the script and the two of them have churned out quite a story.  One that will please the fans, but also sets up Episode 8 perfectly with plenty of unanswered questions surrounded by mystery and intrigue.  Abrams’ direction utilizes his strengths by  ensuring each and every performance in the film is full of emotion and meaningful delivery, while abandoning many of his trademark visuals (lens flare anyone?) in favor of consistency with the other films in the series.  This was important in order to achieve a look that “feels” like a “Star Wars” film, but still elevates the series beyond its nostalgic roots and helps it become something greater.  In short, Abrams and his crew have knocked this one right out of the park.

     The opening titles will again have you cheering and full of anticipation as we are greeted by John Williams’ classic theme and the customary title crawl begins with the  words “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  Clearly all is not as well as when we last visited this era of the “Star Wars” universe in “Return of the Jedi” since they (the Jedi) are apparently gone again.  In Luke’s absence, a new threat culminated from the remnants of the Galactic Empire as well as other mysterious forces has begun to wreak havoc in a new quest to rule the galaxy.  Led, in part, by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a powerful villain with a secretive past who possesses immense skill in the use of the dark side of the Force, The First Order has become nearly as dangerous as its predecessor and is preparing to execute a plan that will once again instill fear amongst everyone in the Republic.  Since the story begins some 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi”, you would assume quite a bit has happened within that timeframe and as the film unfolds, you realize this is definitely the case.  For a time, it appears Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) had begun to reestablish the Jedi Order by training new Jedi to help maintain peace throughout the galaxy.  Something terrible has happened however.  Serious enough that Luke has gone into hiding and no one, including General Leia (Carrie Fisher) of the Resistance, knows where he is or how to find him.

     The story in “The Force Awakens” centers around doing just that, but more than one party is interested.  When the film opens, we meet Resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who has been sent to the planet Jakku in order to retrieve a map that may reveal Luke’s hidden location.  Also on the hunt for Luke is Kylo Ren, who himself is a sort of Darth Vader groupie, sporting similar Sith like get up and possessing a piece of memorabilia from “Star Wars” lore.  Ren arrives on Jakku at the same time as Poe, seeking the same information and doing so in devastating fashion.  When Poe knows he will be captured, he hides the map in his droid, an R2-D2 like contraption that rolls around like a ball called BB-8, and instructs it to go hide as far away as possible until he comes back.  The atrocities Ren orders on the village said to be hiding the secret map are enough to get the attention of Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who is having a change of heart as to what ideals he holds allegiance.  When Poe is taken prisoner by Ren, Finn decides he is done serving The First Order and helps Poe engineer a daring escape.  An escape that lands both of them back on Jakku, but separated after their ship crashes with neither of them knowing the other is alive.

     Finn stumbles upon another village and meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a local scavenger we have already met earlier who proves immediately she is quite capable of taking care of herself.  When Ren finds out the information was hidden in BB-8 and left on Jakku, he orders his troops to go retrieve the droid and this leads them directly to Finn and Rey who escape the planet by way of a familiar space ship.  Abrams finds an ingenious way to reintroduce two of the most beloved characters in film history, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), as they inform our two new young protagonists that everything they have heard about the Jedi and the Force as they were growing up is actually true and that he once fought for the Rebellion.  As I said before, a lot has changed.  Han and Leia are now apart with Han returning to his previous work as a smuggler and Leia again becoming a leader in the Resistance against The First Order.  But Han knows the importance of the information BB-8 is carrying and helps Rey and Finn in their quest to get the droid back to its proper owner.

     And that’s just scratching the surface.  Abrams and Kasdan have infused the film with plenty of those nostalgic call backs to the Original Trilogy fans have been clamoring for ever since they realized the Prequel Trilogy went in a different direction.  But while much of the proceedings are familiar, the filmmakers have also concocted a brilliant narrative that effectively sets the stage for what’s to come while also satisfying fans with an outstanding story that could stand on its own.  The script is also chalk full of humor and unexpected dialogue spoken by virtually every cast member which has a way of giving many of the scenes a lighthearted feel, but also never gets in the way of the moments where both the characters and the audience are subjected to intense emotion.  The performances by the cast are spot on in every facet.  Though it was difficult at first to buy Adam Driver as a nefarious “Star Wars” villain after having watched him in three seasons of HBO’s “Girls”,  seeing him in the role and how he effectively depicts the multiple layers of his character with such skill quickly wipes away the thoughts of his previous work.  He is Kylo Ren and one can only imagine how his character will continue to develop in the future.  As our new heroes, Ridley and Boyega show natural chemistry on screen with each having such interesting and unexplored backstories that Lucasfilm just may want to give both of them a stand alone film on there own.  But the most crucial aspect to pulling this off was properly integrating the three main characters from the Original Trilogy who have now aged thirty plus years since we last saw them with only Harrison Ford going on to be a megastar in Hollywood.  

     If anything, Fisher is underused, considering her importance to the matters at hand, but there is just enough emotional heft plus a promise of more in future installments to say Abrams and Kasdan have given Leia the presence she deserves.  Hamill’s role is spoiler territory and is also likely to be further explored in Episode 8, but make no mistake, “The Force Awakens” is Han Solo’s movie in every way as the story revolves around him as a central character whose decisions over the past 30 years play a significant role in current events.  He is in nearly every way the same character we remember, just older and wiser.  Han sees a lot of potential in both Rey and Finn and knows it will take a new generation of heroes to combat the evil forces that threaten the galaxy once again.  In some ways, Han functions a lot like Rocky Balboa in last month’s “Creed” in both the way he lends his vast experience as well as symbolically passing the torch to those who will continue on in the fight.  And that brings me to my final point.

     There are a number of film franchises that are flourishing as they get up there in both age and installments.  Just this year alone, we’ve seen two wildly successful franchises unveil a seventh film to record crowds and critical acclaim with both “Creed” and “Furious 7” bringing their respective series to staggering heights.  While some dismiss endless sequels, I think it is time we begin to compare these longstanding franchises to episodic television in that both possess immense character development over a significant timeframe which in turn allows audiences to emotionally connect with these characters.  Certainly, we never hear anyone complain about the number of episodes in a season of “Game of Thrones” (most want more) and I can’t see any reason why the same shouldn’t apply to feature films when they remain high in quality over time.  After all, does the fact that we age mean our adventures become any less interesting?  I for one am so absolutely thrilled that the dream of watching the continuing adventures of characters held so near and dear my heart for decades has finally become a reality.  And with “The Force Awakens”, Abrams and his team have shown that experience can go a long way in creating a great film both in front of and behind the camera, but its how they use those already established characters and storylines that creates such an emotional and thrilling ride.  One of the best films of the year, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” excels not only as a blockbuster or technical masterpiece, but also as a stellar achievement in the very basics of filmmaking that made the original an instant classic.  GRADE: A